There’s a familiar question that is asked within families and among friends: “Can you do me a favor?” We also ask the question the other way around: “Can I do you a favor?” We certainly do not hesitate to seek favors from others, especially when we can use a hand around the house or need something from a friend. When the relationship is good, or when the person is important to us, doing or receiving a favor can be useful and important.
Things get murky, however, when we ask a favor in business or politics. Rarely do we innocently ask someone for a favor; there’s usually a purpose for the request. This person may have a network of people who can help us or financial resources to offer. He or she can urge colleagues to use our resources or speak a good word on our behalf. We may need help finding a job, and he or she can advise us on available employment or ask a friend or colleague to hire us.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the “favor economy.” People need the help of others to get things done and advance causes. There’s an ethical problem, however, when favors become simply a method for personal advancement, without any intention of their being returned. Some people want just enough help to take the next step or to receive financial favors. They are looking out for their own ends, with no intention of helping others. They take credit for all the right moves. They feel that they make things happen without anyone’s assistance, forgetting that others cleared the path, made phone calls and opened doors.
The favor economy has been around since time began. Human beings have called upon others for all kinds of reasons—sometimes for their fellow citizens, sometimes just for themselves. So what is a favor—and what is its ethical dimension? The Encarta dictionary provides the primary definition as “an act of kindness performed or granted out of goodwill.” We do a favor simply because we want to be helpful or because we like the person. Another definition is more utilitarian, in ethical terms: “a preference for somebody or something.” The first is personal and sincere; the other is a means to an end.
There is certainly sincerity when a favor is given simply because giving is a pleasure. When the snowfall gets heavy in the winter, my retired neighbor gets out his snowblower and plows my driveway so that my wife and I can get to work. He asks nothing in return. Many of us can step into a simple situation quietly just to do a good deed.
In other places where I have lived, however, a neighbor has plowed the driveway without asking—and then has sought favors in return. In some cases, the person has asked to be paid, even though we never agreed on these terms—but they say that they need the money. This can happen in business situations as well. People want to help us, but they expect us to return the favor. They want us to arrange business deals or help find loans or customers. Such favors are self-serving—and that’s what makes the whole process unethical.
Finally, we’re in a political year. People running for elected office are happy to receive our votes. Some candidates expect to be elected, however, and want us to get friends to vote for them as well. In the end, some candidates are self-serving. They want the office; they want power. So, when a candidate asks for a favor, I want to have assurance that he or she is sincere and finds value in my vote. As we move closer to November, I will listen to candidates and vote for those whom I value. I ask a candidate for just one favor in return: listen to me.
In any case, asking for a favor—my vote—is part of a larger ethical question in life. Am I willing to give freely to help others achieve their ends when people ask favors of me? If I ask a favor, do I sincerely value the person and his or her giftedness? That’s a good reason to ask for a favor. We have to review our ethical choices to see whether we are asking favors for the right reasons. IBI